What Can We Do About “Busyness”?

Action Items to Help You Prioritize

Last month I addressed a meeting of communication professionals about the universal “busyness” imbedded in most organizations, and shared my belief that much of this busyness is caused by lack of rigorous priority setting. I work with many who are “trying to do everything” when “everything” shouldn’t sit at the top of their priority lists.

A common question after the presentation was, “How do great organizations and super-organized people set priorities and what can we learn from them?”

The answer?  There’s really no ONE right way to set priorities! But here are a few examples with action items for you to do that may help answer the “how” question.  It is important that you abandon the mindset that you have to do it all, and use some rigor and discipline to get stuff off your plate.

The Lean Way

Lean management is focused on creating more value for the customer with less. It eliminates waste, which is anything the customer doesn’t value and, therefore, isn’t willing to buy.  For example, a customer shouldn’t have to pay costs associated with mistakes a sales person made. That mistake represents re-work—a form of waste in the lean world.

Action Item:  Identify projects, programs, processes or activities that don’t add value to the customer—that the customer wouldn’t be willing to pay extra to get. Stop doing work that doesn’t add value or revise the processes so they do add value.

Here’s what to look for.

  • Quality problems—defects and scrap
  • Over-production—providing more value than the customer requires. Processing an order (that might change) before it’s needed.
  • Over-processing—too many handoffs or approval steps (bureaucracy)
  • People motion—going on a “safari” to find missing information
  • Transportation—movement of paperwork; distributing unnecessary copies or emails to people
  • Waiting— due to delays or bottlenecks, unnecessary approvals
  • Inventory—too much cash tied up in stuff on shelves; things waiting in an in-box

 The Blockbuster Project

I once worked with a consumer products company that was about to launch a new product. To a great extent the company’s future depended on a successful launch. Hundreds of people with other responsibilities as well needed to come together to contribute to the success. However, the CEO made it very clear that the new product launch was the highest priority.  “If you have a choice between working on the launch or something else, in every case work on the launch.”

Action Item: Find or create your blockbuster, then focus everyone on it.

Shaping Values

Alan was president of a large health care organization when he became frustrated with poor business results that he believed were caused by lack of focus and priorities. He brought all the employees together in a series of town hall meetings. He told them he wanted the organization to focus squarely on three things:

  • A superior patient experience
  • An exciting working environment
  • Acceptable financial returns to shareholders

“These are the most important values to our organization right now,” he said. “We can’t continue to be distracted. I want everyone focused on these three values and nothing else. If tomorrow you’re in a meeting and you’re discussing something other than these three values, you have my permission to raise your hand and politely suggest that the conversation turn to one or more of these three values. Remind them what I said. If the conversation doesn’t change, you may walk out and find a conversation that better aligns with the three values. That’s what we all need to be focusing on.”

Action Item Identify the two or three most important values to your organization and give people permission to walk away from work that isn’t consistent with those values.

Rank Your Work

You have a goal—a performance target. Most everyone does. Write it down. You have 10 things to do on a given day. You may think you have to do it all, but chances are that all 10 aren’t of equal value.

Action Item:  Rank the top 10 things you need to get done from 1 to 10. No two things can occupy the same point on the continuum. Focus on doing the top 3-5.

My bet is that despite the fear that all 10 absolutely must get done, you and everyone around you would be satisfied if you just got the top three or five things done. At least you’d be picking off the top tier, which presumably is the most important toward hitting your goal.

By choosing and practicing a few of these action items regularly, you will find that you have more time to focus on your target goals and spend less time in meetings and doing tasks that are not in alignment. As the CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos has said, “ You can work long, hard AND smart.”

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